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Crime Without Punishment: The Strange Case of Colonel Karuna

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The trial, imprisonment and release of a former Tamil Tiger leader raises some tricky and potentially embarrassing questions for the British government. The former leader of the Tamil Tigers in the east of Sri Lanka Commander Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan alias Colonel Karuna was arrested for travelling to the UK on a false passport in November 2007 and sentenced to 9 months in prison at the end of January 2008.

He was released from prison on May 9 and transferred to an immigration detention centre. He was deported at the beginning of July having escaped charges of war crimes and human rights abuses committed in Sri Lanka.

For the past 25 years the Tamil Tigers have been fighting for a homeland in what is now north and east Sri Lanka. During this time Karuna, proved himself to be an adept guerrilla leader. He quickly rose through the ranks of the Tigers to become Special Commander of the eastern region of the Tamil Eelam, in eastern Sri Lanka. Shortly after his promotion Karuna broke from the Tigers to form his own army, the Tamil People's Liberation Tigers.

After switching sides he began to associate with members of the Sinhala establishment, the dominant ethnic group in Sri Lanka. Tamils allege that the association was so strong, and Karuna's army so important in the fight against the Tamil Tigers, that the Sri Lankan army and Special Forces aided his missions against the Tigers.

Throughout this period Karuna has been accused of being behind some of the most abhorrent abuses of human rights in Sri Lanka. Amnesty UK alleges such abuses include torture, hostage taking, the use of child soldiers, and crimes against humanity.


Human Rights Watch refers to Karuna as having a "long and horrific record of abuse", and claim he is "one of the worst human rights abusers ever to end up in custody in the UK". However, few Tamils believed he would become the first person to be successfully convicted in the UK for war crimes or human rights violations.

Shortly after arriving in the UK Karuna was charged under Section 25 of the Identity Cards Act for the possession of a false identity document, but the circumstances of his arrest and imprisonment are shrouded with secrecy and intrigue, raising questions about the role and competency of the British government.

At Isleworth Crown Court Karuna pleaded guilty to travelling on a fraudulent passport, but said he did so with the backing of the Sri Lankan government. Karuna's lawyer, David Philips, told the court that Karuna "entered the United Kingdom using a diplomatic passport ... it contained a six month multiple visit visa, issued at the British High Commission" in Colombo. "The Sri Lankan government gave him the passport and sent him to the United Kingdom" and it was the Sri Lankan Defense Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, also the Prime Minister's brother, who organised it.

He went on to say that Karuna did not go to the British High Commission to collect the documents and was merely following the instructions of the Sri Lankan government.

Karuna's lawyer told me that none of Karuna's allegations were investigated, and no questions about them have been asked in Parliament. He went on to tell me that his attempts to investigate were met with closed doors and a "wall of silence".

Despite Karuna's claims of a change of heart, his break with the Tigers was generally regarded as opportunistic. Very few sources are prepared to talk on the record about Karuna for political or safety reasons. However, Nadesapillai Vithyatharan, a prominent Tamil newspaper editor in Sri Lanka, and a friend of Karuna's when he was in the Tigers, explained that Karuna jumped before he was pushed. Karuna had allegedly embezzled money from the Tigers, infuriating their leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran. Karuna was a marked man.

His relations with the Sri Lankan government did not fare much better. By 2007 it seemed that Karuna's usefulness to the government was beginning to ebb away. In June of that year, the editor of the Asia Tribune, K.T. Rajasingham, met with the President of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapakse and his Minister for Social Welfare, Douglas Devananda, in Geneva to discuss Sri Lankan affairs, including the "problem" of Karuna.

The minutes of the meeting show Rajasingham's stance on Karuna: "Unfortunately, I supported Karuna thinking that though he started his career as a terrorist, he could be rehabilitated", made to respect human rights and be repositioned in the democratic mainstream of politics. He went on to explain that Karuna was a liability to the Sri Lankan government, "a spent force". Three years after leaving the Tigers, "he has no more real stories to narrate and will be of no use to anyone". Rajasingham's most chilling comment is that Karuna's former deputy and political rival Pillayan "is planning to arrest Karuna" but is hesitating due to opposition from the Defense Ministry. "I suggest the government get rid of Karuna, a liability and work with Pillayan and his men who are more popular in the east than Karuna".

Pilliayan has since become the government's man in the east. Banda (not his real name), a Sinhala, and a Sri Lanka expert for a major international news organisation explains, on condition of anonymity, that, "due to fratricidal animosities between Karuna and Pillaiyan sought the help of the government to get out of the country".

Karuna was, then, willingly removed from Sri Lanka, but given allegations of serious war crimes and human rights abuses hanging over him, it is unlikely that he could have wished British authorities to hear of his escape.

In addition to Rajasingham's evidence, independent sources have confirmed that, as Karuna alleged in court, Sri Lankan officials helped him through the through the airport, bypassing customs, and delivering his passport to him onboard the plane.

The British government seemed to have been convinced enough by Karuna's evidence to call the Sri Lankan High Commissioner to the Foreign Office for an explanation. The Sri Lankan government has denied all allegations of assisting Karuna.

The question is, however, if the Sri Lankan government wanted rid of Karuna why go through such a convoluted process? This is Sri Lanka after all, where disappearances are part of daily life. A number of explanations exist. Vithyatharan suggests that assassination or disappearance was out of the question, for it would have heralded a "victory for the Tigers".

Banda explains that Karuna is considered something of a folk hero amongst the Sinhala community in Sri Lanka for turning the tide of the 25-year civil war against the Tigers. He is a "Sinhala hero, remember that. He's the one who helped the government army to chase Tigers off the East". Any obvious action against Karuna would have been deeply unpopular.

It is highly probably that Karuna would not have been able to leave the country without the help of the Sri Lankan government. Visas from Sri Lanka, especially those issued for diplomatic passports, are not given out without government assurances that that application is genuine. Further, all persons entering and exiting embassies and high commissions, especially in war zones, are logged for security reasons. Although identity fraud is common in Sri Lanka it is rare for diplomatic passports to be forged.

Karuna could not have picked up the passports himself. The journalist who broke the Karuna story in Sri Lanka for the Sunday Leader, Ranjith Jayasunderas, explains that British embassy officials he spoke to are "certain that his passport was delivered to them by regular Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry channels".

The question remains, however, of the competence of the British High Commission in Colombo and perhaps even the Foreign Office. One British member of the European Parliament with an interest in Sri Lanka said, off the record, that the British government issued the visa "on the basis of support" from the Sri Lankan government, and was "stitched up by the Sri Lankan government" in a way that was "alarming to say the least".

However, Karuna's face is rather well known in Sri Lanka and among the diplomatic community in Sri Lanka - at least as well known as Martin McGuinness's is in the UK. There is little chance that Britain's High Commission staff did not recognise Karuna's photo on the passport when issuing the visa. It would be remarkable if at least one official in the High Commission had not recognised Karuna's photograph.

A senior British MP said, on condition of anonymity, that the "history of Tamil Tiger participants is that clearly there have been various covert and sanctioned exercises where individuals have left (Sri Lanka) over the years". "I guess that our man in Colombo and the Foreign Office and other governments would not find themselves in unknown territory to allow free passage".

Banda suggested that the Foreign Office may have intervened on behalf of the Sri Lankan government to ensure Karuna's safe passage. "My contacts within the HC in Colombo didn't know this went through until it blew up they were not aware ... so it looks like someone high up was really involved".

Whether or not they were, there have been few if any questions asked about the conduct of the High Commission staff. As Jayasunderas points out, "this need not have been Karuna. It could very well have been Bin Laden with plastic surgery, smuggled in by the Sri Lankan government. He would have gotten through just the same".

The Home Office refused to comment on the case. The High Commissioner at the time, Dominck Chilcott, told me that the questions raised here are "all very good" but that he cannot comment on the matter.

Perhaps the most disappointing element of the debacle, especially for human rights activists, was the inaction of the British government when they may have had the opportunity of securing a conviction of an alleged war criminal.

Both Amnesty and Human Rights Watch petitioned the UK government and the Metropolitan police to charge Karuna but the case was not pursued. Yolanda Foster, Amnesty International's expert on the case, claims that there was a collection of evidence from NGOs presented to the Metropolitan police, including a large number of credible cases of human rights abuse.

Human Rights Watch has gathered considerable evidence of Karuna's role in human rights abuses, including the abduction of children to serve as child soldiers, in the form of case studies, witness statements, maps and photographs. Evidence gathered by the Norwegian Sri Lanka Monitoring Project and UNICEF confirm the allegations. UNICEF alone has documented evidence of more than 200 cases of child soldier recruitment by Karuna's militia.

Amnesty is unhappy that despite the quantity of evidence, the police sent only a limited number of cases to the Crown Prosecution Service. The CPS says it dropped the case because it felt the information presented by the Met was insufficient. It says there was "insufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction for any criminal offences in the UK".

The reasons for the lack of evidence presented to the Crown Prosecution Service are still unknown. The Guardian made a freedom of information request, which was not fruitful. The Met have failed to respond to letters from Amnesty and the chair of Parliament's Sri Lanka Group, Andy Love, attempted to find out more from the Home Office, but it refused to divulge details of the case.

"The claim about lack of evidence seems spurious" Chandra Sriram, the director of the Centre on Human Rights in Conflict told me. The real issue for Sriram given the abundance of available evidence against Karuna "is the absence of political will to carry a case forward".

"The British government blew it," says Brad Adams, Human Rights Watch's Asia director. Adams accuses the government as a whole for the failure to prosecute, from the police to the Home Office. The police and CPS seemed not to understand who they had and lacked the resources to pursue the case. For Adams, the government's stated commitment to human rights is "not matched by its actions".

Amnesty's Yolanda Foster told me, "We are very disappointed that the UK government did not pursue the case". "There were very serious allegations made against Karuna but he has been returned to Sri Lanka where there is a culture of impunity". Amnesty is concerned that Sri Lankans who did come forward now face retaliation.

Having now been deported, Karuna's fate in Sri Lanka remains uncertain. Whilst some who know him, including his lawyer, are impressed by his "fierce loyalty", others believe that suspicion and in-fighting may spell the end of Karuna one way or another.

The Tamil People's Liberation Tigers's political wing, the United People's Freedom Alliance contested and won elections in the former Tiger strongholds in the east earlier this year.

Although the victory was tainted by claims of intimidation and fraud, leading to the withdrawal of the largest Tamil party, the Tamil National Alliance party, the result has been accepted by the government.

Sri Lankan media have reported that Karuna has been reinstated as the leader of his party, leaving activists to bemoan a missed opportunity for the British government to show its commitment to human rights.

Karuna's was, however, a pyrrhic victory, for in his absence his rival Pillayan was offered the post of Chief Minister of the Eastern Provincial Council. Just in time to meet the British Foreign Office minister, Lord Malloch-Brown during his four-day visit to Sri Lanka. Karuna remains on the sidelines.

Karuna still has many enemies, both among Tamils and Sinhala. His fate hinges on his continued worth to the Sri Lankan government. The only certainties are that the human rights situation in Sri Lanka will continue to deteriorate and ordinary Sri Lankans will continue to suffer.


Dr. Lee Salter is a lecturer in Journalism and Media Studies at the University of the West of England, Bristol.